Adam DeGross knows the power of a great image.
The photographer shot the famous black and white portait of Lil Peep. It’s one of the images which will probably reappear online for decades to come, through heartfelt fan tributes and retrospective articles about the late emo-rapper.
DeGross is employed as Post Malone’s in-house photographer. Following Peep’s death, Post immortalised the image by getting it tattooed on his upper arm. “It’s my favourite photo,” says DeGross. “I didn’t dub it ‘iconic’, but most people use that word to describe it. Whenever I mention it, they know exactly the shot I’m talking about.”
Perhaps the reason everyone loves the Lil Peep photo so much is because of how intimate it is – a counterpoint to the staged, planned and retouched images more commonly seen of any celebrity.
This kind of natural image is best captured by a certain type of pop photographer – one who tours, travels, and sometimes even lives with their subjects for years at a time, earning the artist’s trust and shooting 24/7.
Tasked not only with capturing the more polished press shots and gig photos, these photographers document more candid moments and backstage scenes, usually gaining massive traction on social media as a result. They serve, in short, as popstars’ personal paparazzi.
There’s a proud history of snappers who embedded themselves in circles of superstars – think of Pennie Smith and the Clash, or Dominique Tarlé hanging with The Rolling Stones at Villa Nellcôte. Of Tarlé’s work in France, Keith Richards said “I realise, looking at these moments he captured, that he was part of the family, the band in fact.”
But in today’s social media-driven world, where Instagram is essential to building an artist’s audience and unflattering photos can spread quickly (and remain in constant circulation), it’s not unusual for even a seemingly off-the-cuff selfie to be monitored by management and strategically scheduled. The mission of getting truly natural pics of a massive star is harder than ever. But there are a handful of photographers who’ve pulled it off.
The key to this creative relationship is trust. “I’m free to take photos whenever I feel it’s important, which is a beautiful relationship to have,” says Jordan Hughes, who’s been part of The 1975’s tight-knit team for the last two years. “There have also been moments when Matty has literally said: ‘It’s okay to film this mate’, if I’m holding off in certain situations. It’s nice to work with a band that values documentation so highly.”
For Flo Ngala, who spent two years shooting Cardi B onstage and off, trust was gained by “shooting with integrity”. The goal, she says, was always “to capture what stood out to me visually, regardless if the images were off-guard or not”.
While Cardi B thrives with glamorous styling and striking shoot concepts, the rap superstar is also acutely aware that her fans love her for her unvarnished personality – and she’s happy for the world to have the occasional glimpse behind-the-scenes.
“Candid shots can feel really powerful,” Ngala says, “and they actually became as valued as the posed or intentional photos. That gave me the liberty of continuing to be free with snapping away.” She fondly remembers shooting an intimate family gathering for Cardi B and Offset’s daughter Kulture’s first birthday – a brief opportunity to “see her as a mom more than a recording artist for a few hours”.
“Knowing what is truly off-limits comes down to intuition, common sense and good people skills,” says Pixie Levinson, who’s worked closely with Dua Lipa since her first tour back in 2016 (the pair were good mates before they started working together).
On the road with Dua, Levinson is given “the room to do whatever and go wherever I like to get the photographs needed”. But when it’s time to lower her camera, she knows how to take a hint. “I’ve been working alongside Dua and her team long enough to have developed the emotional intelligence to know when to step back and give her some space.”
Santiago Felipe started working with Björk on her Vulnicura tour in 2015. Since then, it’s rare that you’ll find a pic on the Iceland artist’s Instagram which isn’t credited to him. Although the pair work closely, Feilpe was primarily hired to shoot Björk onstage (he’s the sole photographer at all her gigs). Björk’s aesthetic output is extremely important to her, a fact Felipe is cognisant of when working. “I always ask,” he says. “[And] I just know when it’s time for me to step out of a room.”
DeGross has seen plenty of photographers mess it up by betraying a star’s trust, or creating an uncomfortable vibe by appearing too excited about their fame. “No-one wants to be around a ‘super fan’ all the time,” he says, arguing that the key is “acting like a regular person”.
While the debauched and hedonistic culture of touring feels like a throwback these days, life on the road still involves a fair amount of late nights and hungover flights. During these hectic schedules, tour photographers still have to work fast to keep the content coming. On show nights, selecting, editing, and getting approvals keeps Felipe up till 5am; while Levinson usually skips the after party to head back to the hotel and start editing. “On tour I become a bit nocturnal,” she says.
“Since the beginning I’ve treated it as a job,” says Felipe, “and I try to give it 100 per cent”.
“I don’t let anything take away from my professionalism in delivering what’s required,” says Hughes.
Yet it’s easy for boundaries to blur; being privy to an artist’s innermost private environments – literally being plugged into their lives – is certain to test the limits of any working relationship. Can you truly become friends with someone who is, ultimately, your boss?
For Levinson, the trick is to not let ego get in the way, and to not take professional decisions the wrong way. “In my experience, a friendship can easily stay strong and intact if you as a photographer remember that, just because someone may not agree with you about a photo, it doesn’t mean they do not agree with you as a human,” she says. “It’s never personal.”
“Going into working with The 1975, I approached it on the basis that they were employers and I would always keep personal relationships at arm’s length,” says Hughes. “But when you spend almost every single day with a group of people for 18 months, you naturally bond on so, so many levels.” The band has been together since they were teenagers, and they’ve kept old mates in their crew. Hughes says he’s struck up genuine friendships within their world. When a recent relationship of his broke down while on tour, “every single band member offered me their spare rooms while I sorted myself out.”
For DeGross, the job has also blossomed into something bigger. “Post and I have something special,” he tells me. “He truly is one of my best friends, and the people in his camp have become like family to me.”